Staff wellbeing: Secondary traumatic stress

Secondary trauma occurs when the act of supporting a traumatised young person becomes traumatic in itself – and it is a danger teachers should be aware of. Darren Martindale advises in SecEd.

Most teachers have felt it – that creeping, embodied sense of fear or dread when a certain pupil enters the classroom or before they walk in. It might, actually, have begun before you got up that morning.

You’d never admit to it, because you are a professional. In the more extreme cases, however, the tightening knot in the pit of your stomach is not just a symptom of everyday stress, and it certainly isn’t a sign of weakness or failure. You may be starting to suffer from secondary traumatic stress – where supporting a traumatised person becomes traumatic in itself – and this must be very carefully managed because it can damage your health and shorten your career.

Trauma can affect a pupil’s capacity for attention, memory, critical thinking, problem-solving, self-reflection and, of course, emotional regulation.

In such cases, emotional outbursts, along with other behaviours that are highly disruptive in school, can become a young person’s defence mechanism. This is where secondary trauma becomes a reality for teachers. A pupil who is really struggling with emotional wellbeing might seem to do everything in their power to undermine you. They can appear lost and out of control. They may destroy your lessons and even instil fear in their class mates. You begin to work with constant uncertainty over how they will react; when they will blow up next.

When that happens, many teachers have an unfortunate tendency to overanalyse and to blame themselves; you naturally ask: what am I doing wrong? You sense their pain and anger too keenly, and might start to relate to their distorted view of themselves and the world (psychologists call this the “internal working model”).

They project negative feelings – anxiety, isolation, rejection, anger, fear – toward you, which you absorb and then reflect back, in an increasingly vicious cycle. The result of all this “toxic stress” is that you start to experience the same feeling of being physically and emotionally overwhelmed as your pupil. You’re suffering from secondary trauma.

Secondary trauma symptoms are wide-ranging but can include cognitive or emotional disfunction, eating or sleep disorders, and stress-related illness such as depression. Avoidance or denial are also, unfortunately, common factors which can prevent people from seeking help. If unchecked, secondary trauma can lead to total burn-out – I imagine that many SecEd readers can think of a colleague who has suffered in this way.

Read more about secondary trauma. How to recognise it, what your school can do and how you can help yourself. Staff wellbeing: Secondary traumatic stress

Please tell us your thoughts in comments or via Twitter ~ Tamsin

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